Rewriting the Book on Cool
interview with author Ned Vizzini shows us how to Be More
By Jess Liese
Ned Vizzini is cooler than you.
Actually, you wouldn't
know it from meeting him. He's an affable, approachable, average guy who
derives dorky glee from old-school Nintendo, rock trivia, and obscure Star
Wars references. Nothing about meeting Ned in person would suggest the
presence of greatness - unusual intelligence and depth, and a caustic
sense of humor, to be sure. You'd never suspect, though, that you were
hanging out with a literary powerhouse. But at 23, Ned is already a
veteran of the New York City literary world, with two books under his
belt, a third in the works, and a name that's gaining notoriety as one of
the nuclei of the up and coming reading scene.
Ned's first novel,
Be More Chill, was released in June by Miramax Books. In short, the
book is about a 15-year old loser who takes a pill that makes him cool.
The pill, called a "squip," instructs the novel's protagonist in the ways
of being popular, catapulting him from perpetual loserhood into the upper
echelons of coolness.
More than that, Ned says, Be More
Chill is "a 21st Century fable." The implied moral? "Be yourself, and
don't pay money for things that suck. It's a really freeing statement,
when you think about it."
On its way to the inevitable lesson, the
book provides a surprisingly frank look at teenage debauchery, and a
hilarious, unconventional (and at times painfully resonant) deconstruction
of the high school social pecking order. The book contains a degree of
refreshing honesty not often present in young adult fiction. "You need to
be real when you're dealing with teenagers," he says. "They are very good
at sniffing out dishonesty."
It's possible that Ned is so able to
relate to his largely teenage audience because it wasn't so long ago that
he was one of them. Ned was 14 when his first column appeared in the New
York Press. Over the course of his high school years, he regularly
contributed essays about such teenage rites of passage. In 1999, Free
Spirit Publishing released Teen Angst? Naaah..., a memoir partially
culled from Ned's New York Press columns.
The essays collected in
Teen Angst explored topics from prom dates to family vacations and
catapulted Ned into minor teenage cult hero status. He is a regular
featured guest at "New York is Book Country" and speaks at junior high and
high schools across the country. Ned also spends hours each week
responding to the hundreds of emails and message board posts that arrive
via his website (http://www.nedvizzini.com/), and relishes his role as a
guru to what he jokingly refers to the "loving contingent of dorks and
rejects" who turn to him for writing advice as well as general guidance
through the tribulations of adolescence.
"Sure, I wanted to go out
and write serious, groundbreaking world-shaking literature," he says, "but
then after (Teen Angst, which is now in its 9th printing, I found a
tremendous reward working with young people. They're more honest. They
have no ulterior motives. There's also this tremendous sense of potential
that you have when you are a teenager. By working in this arena I'm in
touch with that potential every day.
"These kids don't have any
role models for success other than athletes and musicians…they think that
people who write books are untouchable figures - and then I show up. I'm
very touchable. Tactile to the max."
He certainly hasn't ruled out
the idea of writing serious fiction with more adult themes, though, and
anticipates that his next novel will likely appeal to a more grown-up
audience. And in the meantime, he is reaching out to anybody and everybody
with a love for the written word. One of the most earnestly self-promoting
writers in New York City, Ned always has a side project or event in the
works. Chief among these is a reading series at Barbes, in Park Slope (http://www.barbesbrooklyn.com/) which he's recently
"The reading scene is something that I got into
really this year," he says. "I feel very strongly that it's something
really special. As we go forward and as our media gets more and more
flashy, the idea of actually sitting and hearing someone tell a story
takes on an appeal you can't get anywhere else. One of the most simple
things to do is sit around and tell stories."
In a very short
time, Ned has become a popular figure on the New York reading scene
through guest spots at the East Side Oral series at the Living Room and
the WYSIWYG series at P.S. 122, among others. A reading series in Park
Slope, Ned's home neighborhood (he has lived in Brooklyn "for a solid,
proud, and yet shameful 16 years"), seemed to make sense for many reasons.
But mainly, according to Ned, it made sense because Park Slope has
the highest concentration of authors in New York City, and in fact,
anywhere in the country outside of Princeton, New Jersey. So when the
opportunity to curate a reading series virtually fell into his lap, he
eagerly took it on.
The series began in July and takes place every
other week. Starting in September, the series will move from Tuesday
nights to Thursdays.
While many readings in the city bring writers
of similar genres or styles together, there is no rhyme or reason to the
roster at Barbes. "I don't like themes. If you like themes, get a
cookbook. I like to mix it up. I'm really happy that on August 24th you
have Rachel Kramer Bussel reading her lesbian erotica, and Alexia Lewnes
is going to read her visceral stories about NYC street kids, and Dave
Fabricant is going to read us his comedy and show us his mazes."
Eclecticism, Ned says, is at the heart of his series. "I'm
fascinated by what people do. You can't do everything, so hang out with
people who do everything."
Of course, it goes without saying that
Ned makes a pretty concerted effort to do almost everything himself. In
addition to the Barbes series, he is busily preparing for two upcoming
events in particular, and the mere mention of either inspires his
excitement level to ratchet up a notch or two as he throws in last-minute
remembered details at a breakneck pace.
On September 23, at the
Brooklyn Brewery, he'll be reading from Be More Chill and
introducing a special screening of Donnie Darko. The details of the
event are still being worked out, but admission will include open bar and
a copy of the novel. "I can't get away from that movie - everyone who
mentions my book, they mention that movie. It's because Donnie Darko takes
adolescent angst issues to poststructural levels, and my books deal with a
lot of the same issues. If you are or ever were a misunderstood young
person, you're probably going to like both."
Later that week, on
September 28, Ned will join fellow prodigious youngsters Nick Antosca,
Marty Beckerman, David Amsden, and Lexy Benaim at "Feed the Young Writer
2004," a reading event he's organizing at P.S. 122. "All of these people
are annoyingly young. We want to give them a chance to show that they're
actually good. We want to give people a reason not to hate these people."
It's entirely possible not to hate them, but envy may be another
story. Be More Chill may not ultimately explain how to be popular,
but Ned's position at the center of this new wave of precocious young
writers ensures that he's nevertheless rewriting the book on cool.